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DEAR PIP: my son is one of the youngest in the classroom...

Updated: May 14, 2022

...and an older, much bigger boy is being aggressive towards him. What is a good way for my son to stand up to him?

DEAR ALI: My son is one of the youngest in the classroom and an older, much bigger boy is being aggressive towards him. What is a good way for my son to stand up to him?
ASK ALI - bullying

One of the first things that came to mind was a memory from graduate school regarding violence intervention. It was specifically regarding how emotion (and emotional reactions) serve as fuel to violence and bullying. The more we react emotionally, the more we hook the offender into continuing the bullying because we are giving them a reaction, which is ultimately what they are looking for to serve whatever it is leading to their behavior. In my humble experience parenting, I have found that the most successful moments of diffusing emotional situations, whether it be a tantrum, fight, or heartache with a child - have all had a common thread – me being able to extract my emotion and remain neutral in the heat of the moment. This is a learned skill and one that I often struggle to enact. There is so much emotion associated with parenting kids through a tough time or being the kid enduring the tough time so the difficulty trying to take the emotion out of it isn’t lost on me.

I came across these 11 tips for teaching your child to how to stand up to bullying from Dr. Laura Markham, a Clinical Psychologist and author, and I bookmarked them awhile back. I found some great advice scattered throughout and I hope you do as well!

1. Model compassionate, respectful relationships from the time your child is small. The most effective way to keep children from being bullied, and from becoming bullies, is to make sure they grow up in loving, respectful relationships, rather than relationships that use power or force to control them. Children learn both sides of every relationship, and they can act either one.

2. Stay connected to your child through thick and thin. Lonely kids are more likely to be bullied. And kids are often ashamed that they’re being bullied, so they worry about telling their parents. So prioritize your relationship with your child, and keep those lines of communication open, no matter what. 83% of Wayzata students reported in the 2016 Minnesota Student Survey that they felt they could talk to a parent about difficult things. And it was even higher among younger students! They are willing and ready to talk!

3. Model confident behavior with other people. Experiment with finding ways to assert your own needs or rights while maintaining respect for the other person.

4. Directly teach your child respectful self-assertion. Kids need to know they can get their needs met while being respectful of other people. Give them words to stick up for themselves early on:

“It’s my turn now.” “Hey, stop that.” “Hands off my body.” “It’s not okay to hurt.” “I don’t like being called that. I want you to call me by my name.”

5. Teach your child basic social skills. Unfortunately, bullies prey on kids whom they perceive to be vulnerable. If you have a child who has social-skill challenges, make it a priority to support your child to make him less attractive to bullies. Then, make games out of social skills, and practice at home. Role play with your child how to join a game at the playground, introduce himself to another child at a party, or initiate a playdate. For instance, kids who are successful in joining groups of kids usually observe first, and find a way to fit into the group, rather than just barging in.

Sometimes kids want peer acceptance so much that they continue to hang around a group of peers even when one of the group leaders begins to mistreat them. If you suspect your child might be vulnerable, listen to what he says about peer interactions to help him learn to check in with his own inner wisdom, and work to provide healthy relationship opportunities for him.

6. Teach your child how the dynamics of bullying work. Research shows that bullies begin with verbal harassment. How the “victim” responds to the first verbal aggression determines whether the bully continues to target this particular child. If the aggression gives the bully what he’s looking for — a feeling of power from successfully pushing the other child’s buttons — the aggression will generally escalate. It’s imperative to discuss this issue with your child BEFORE he is subject to bullying, so he can stand up for himself successfully when a bully first “tests” him.

7. Practice with role-plays so that your child feels comfortable responding to teasing and provocations. Role-play with your child how he can stand up to a bully. Point out to your child that the bully wants to provoke a response that makes him feel powerful, so showing emotion and fighting back are exactly what the bully feeds off. Explain that while he can’t control the bully, he can always control his own response. So in every interaction, how he responds will either inflame the situation or defuse it. Your child needs to avoid getting “hooked” no matter how mad the bully makes him.

The best strategy is always to maintain one’s own dignity, and to let the “bully” maintain his dignity, in other words, not to attack or demean the other person. To do this, simply say something calm like:

“You know, I’m just going to ignore that comment.” “I think I have something else to do right now.” “No thank you.” Then, just walk away.

Teach your child to count to ten to stay calm, look the bully in the eye, and say one of these things. Practice until your child has a strong, self-assured tone.

8. Teach your child that there is no shame in being frightened by a bully, in walking away, or in telling an adult and asking for help. Bullying situations can escalate, and saving face is less important than saving their life.

9. Teach kids to intervene to prevent bullying when they see it. Bullying expert Michele Borba says that when bystanders — kids who are nearby — intervene correctly, studies find they can stop bullying more than half the time and within 10 seconds.

The best interventions: Partner with the victim and remove him or her from danger – Go stand with the victim physically, turn the victim away from the bully and walk him or her off in the other direction — towards adult help. Say “You look upset” or “I’ve been looking for you” or “The teacher sent me to find you.” Get help – Bullies love an audience. Get the other kids on your side by waving them over to you, yelling, “We need your help.” Confront the bully: “You’re being mean.” Then walk away: “C’mon, let’s go!” And of course, if you’re at all worried about safety, shout for a teacher.

10. Teach your child basic bully avoidance. Bullies operate where adults aren’t present, so if your child has been bullied, she should avoid unsupervised hallways, bathrooms, and areas of the playground. Sitting in the front of the school bus, standing in the front of the line, and sitting at a lunch table near the cafeteria chaperones are all good strategies for bully avoidance.

11. Don’t hesitate to intervene. Your job as the parent is to protect your child. That means that in addition to teaching your child to stick up for herself, you may well need to call the teacher or principal. Don’t give your child the message that she’s all alone to handle this. And don’t assume that if there isn’t physical violence, she isn’t being wounded in a deep way.

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